When your hero is a heroine there is one inevitable problem and that is; at what point do you cross the line from heroine to damsel-in-distress? It’s not a question much asked of male heroes because there isn’t a long literary tradition of the man being saved by a woman, but when a woman is saved by a man there can be the worry that you’ve just disempowered your empowered woman.

There isn’t really a simple answer to this, if there was then there wouldn’t have been centuries of women’s suffrage in various forms. Perhaps we could break it down into a few catchall rules:

  • Your heroine isn’t constantly getting into trouble she can’t get out of alone.
  • Your heroine isn’t being rescued every five minutes.
  • Your heroine is as capable in her field as a man would be eg she’s not a policewoman screaming while the men save the day.
  • Your heroine isn’t always behaving without a modicum of common sense.
  • Your heroine gets to do some rescuing too.

Now, this isn’t to say that your heroine instantly becomes a damsel-in-distress because she sometimes needs help, everyone needs help sometimes and sometimes they even need a full-on rescue. A famous example would be Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Buffy is capable of saving the day but she sometimes needs saving too; she has a collection of friends around her all with different skills. Writing a strong heroine doesn’t mean she has to be the best at everything, any more than a man, people fall and need other people to help them up, it’s the nature of life.

I think an extreme version of a woman who is overly capable would be as bad as a woman who is completely incapable because it can be as unrealistic and annoying for a reader. The other extreme being the completely stupid character, man or woman, that has the reader throwing a book across a room in frustration going ‘Oh my God! How can they be that stupid?’

I can think of several books that I won’t mention where heroes, particularly, heroines walk into situations on a regular basis that could be avoid by pausing for two seconds and thinking. In such situations though I would argue it’s not anti-feminist for the heroine to ask advice, the male characters in Lord of the Rings are always asking Gandalf for advice but no-one ever suggested it emasculates them. But maybe that’s because Gandalf is also a man, maybe if he was a she it would be different, but either way I would say seeking advice is perfectly acceptable.

As I mentioned earlier the temptation can be to make a heroine unrealistically capable so she doesn’t appear incapable. I would advise resisting the urge, the best way to keep your heroines strong and engaging is to make them fallible and human, so to speak. They have their strengths and their flaws as any hero would, don’t constantly think, ‘Is my heroine strong?’ think, ‘Is my heroine believable?’ or ‘Would she do this?’

Largely what makes the damsel-in-distress so frustrating is the fact they are so unbelievable because no-one could get into the same situations and need rescuing so often without learning something. If your heroine is dangling from a cliff by one hand and needs rescuing because she wasn’t wearing a harness when she should’ve been maybe she learns to wear a harness or be more careful on the rocks or some such. If she learns nothing and ends up in the same position half-a-dozen times the reader will be tearing their hair out and bellowing ‘wear a bloody harness!’ and more than likely put your book down and never read another.

In the end the best thing to do is simply to try not to worry and write the story, by the end you will know so much more about your characters you might be restructuring from the foundations up. Worrying about potential interpretations of your characters will potentially stifle your creativity and lead to writers block. As I keep saying, you don’t have to show anyone your writing until you’re ready.

If you want some reading material featuring strong heroines who can rescue and be rescued without being infallible or damselesque I would recommend Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld or Cainsville series or Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson books or Alpha and Omega series.


For more writing advice try my archive page.

Tweet me @SisterQuill

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